It is prime time to start thinking about some key aspects of that impending 2014 Ironman. Regardless of whether you’re an experienced Ironman athlete or a first-timer, the greater your preparation, the greater the likelihood of success.
Building the Right Foundation
Getting ready for an Ironman is like building a house. If you want to build up, you have to build a very strong and stable foundation underneath first. There are two critical components to consider when building a foundation of fitness.
The first is overall body strength. A strength program should be an integral part of your training plan, especially during the winter months. Two or three weekly sessions are enough to realize large improvements. The strength work can focus primarily on functional movements. Don’t be shy about pushing some real weight around either. Endurance athletes often skip over any real recruitment work. This means low repetition, high weight sets. This type of work teaches your body to use more of the muscle it already has. And of course never neglect your core and hip stability. The ability for your inner core and hip muscles to remain stable during movement is critical for increased performance as well as injury prevention.
Strength work does not need to be limited to the weight room. You can include elements of strength work in all three sports. Some examples include big gear (low cadence) work on the bike, running on hilly terrain and pulling in the pool (with or without paddles). When you are increasing the load on your muscles, tendons and joints, technique is incredibly important. Seeking the advice of a professional strength expert is highly recommended.
Base aerobic fitness is the second critical element when building a foundation. Base aerobic fitness refers to lower intensity work for longer durations. For most of us, longer base mileage is tough in the winter.
Days are shorter and the temperature and road conditions are often not conducive to longer miles on the bike or run. So does this mean you have to sit on a bike trainer for hours on end? Not if you are willing to embrace winter. You don’t need specificity all year long. Your heart and lungs don’t know the difference between biking, running, swimming, cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, mountain biking or basically any endurance activity. The winter can be an incredible time to get fit. Sports like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and skating have significant crossover benefits.
If you are forced to ride your bike indoors, then focus on technical work and shorter big gear (low cadence) sets that challenge your aerobic capacity and recruitment. If you are outside engaging in winter sports then keep it organic. Let the terrain determine your effort.
If you are doing an Ironman in the summer of 2014it’s important to work backwards from the race date. The minimum amount of time you will require is six months. If you are a beginner, you may want to give yourself at least a year or more to build yourself up to the Ironman distance. If you are a fit and healthy individual and you have some triathlon experience, then six months is probably enough. If you are a very experienced triathlete or a professional, you can be ready in as little as 12 weeks.
The longer you have to prepare, the more opportunity you will have to explore different types of training. A huge mistake athletes make is thinking that training needs to be the same all year round. The body wants and needs new stimulus to change, adapt and grow.
Typically a phase or specific focus lasts anywhere from eight to 14 weeks. If you start training for an Ironman six months out (24 weeks), then you can realistically fit in two different phases. Training with targeted specificity for a particular Ironman (meaning workout scatered to a specific course) does not need to happen until 10 to 14 weeks out from the race.
Because the work you will do 10 to 14 weeks out of Ironman will be long sustained aerobic efforts, the phase preceding that can focus on shorter, faster work and challenge your lactate threshold and aerobic capacity zones. Get fast first then get as fast as you can while staying as aerobic as you can.
One of the greatest challenges in a sport like triathlon is how frequently you can engage in each of the three sports. When you are learning a new skill or trying to master an old one, the body, brain and nervous system love frequency. The more you can do something and recover from it, the better you will get and the quicker you will do so. Athletes that are at the top of any sport are training20 to 40 hours per week honing their skills and gaining deeper levels of fitness.
Triathlon poses a significant time management challenge, which is magnified when considering that most triathletes have full-time jobs and families. A good rule of thumb is to do each sport a minimum of three times a week.
In a sport like swimming, it is better to do three shorter sessions than one long one. (See Angela Naeth’s suggestions on p.52). The more frequently you can make a connection with the water the more your nervous system will learn and hard-wire patterns. Getting involved with a masters group is highly recommended. Masters groups are a fun, engaging way to learn and get fit and they create a level of accountability on days you may be more inclined to stay in bed.
Running frequency is very important because impact tolerance is often a limiting factor for people. Running can be incredibly hard on your body. It’s important to stress your bones, muscles and tendons regularly and allow recovery and adaptation regularly.
Biking is probably the most forgiving of the three sports in that you can still experience momentum and speed with less refined movements. If tight on time, you could do only two quality workouts in the week and still have success. Biking also offers the opportunity to do longer aerobic mileage without as much risk of injury. A long bike ride each week (two or more hours) will boost your overall fitness.
Obviously if you have the luxury of time, then more frequency is great as long as you can recover adequately and there is a method behind the workouts. If you are a professional or in it to win it then three times per sport per week is likely far too little to be competitive.
The equipment part of the triathlon equation can be overwhelming. Triathlon is highly innovative and as such new products flood the market every year. The best approach, especially early on, is to keep it simple. With these nine items you can get yourself through any Ironman safely and with success. The rest of the gadgets – compression gear, gps units, power meters, aero helmets and disc wheels – are a bonus. Having a nice bike is important, but having a bike that is fit to you properly is arguably more important. You should include a bike fitting as an essential part of your bike cost and it should come before expensive race wheels or an aero helmet. Don’t forget to source out second hand equipment as well. But, be sure to know your size first. Most importantly, embrace the journey.
Here’s a list of the most important purchases you should make if you are going to do an Ironman (and their estimated cost range):
1. Bike ($1,500–$15,000)
2. Professional bike fitting ($100–$300)
3. Bike helmet ($125–$300)
4. Sunglasses ($50–$300)
5. Running shoes that work for your feet and running gait ($90–$200)
6. Goggles that fit your face ($15–$40)
7. Wetsuit that fits your body ($200–$1,000)
8. One- or two-piece triathlon specific race suit($60–$200)
9. Heart Rate Monitor ($100–$500)